Eco-friendly coffee capsules – How harmless are they really?

Eco-friendly coffee capsules – How harmless are they really?

Lungo, Ristretto, Crema, Americano or simply Classic: All of these are available with a coffee capsule machine at the touch of a button. Manufacturers have been happy about rising sales figures for years – but the mountains of waste that are produced by the disposable capsules are also growing with them. An unbelievable 8 million capsules are used in the UK every day. For us humans, capsule machines may be a convenience – for the environment they are a small catastrophe.

A capsule contains almost as much packaging as coffee content, resulting in a gigantic mountain of waste, most of which is incinerated. Without a coffee capsule, the coffee grounds go into the organic waste and serve nature again as a nutrient supplier. Coffee capsules make this cycle impossible, unless you separate coffee grounds and capsules – but who does that… Even if some manufacturers point out that the capsules can be recycled, that’s just theory. Because different standards both in the waste collection and in the sorting plants as well as the relatively high weight of the capsules due to the coffee grounds they contain make the automated sorting of the capsules difficult. It can therefore be assumed that most of the capsules are not sorted correctly and are therefore not recycled, but ultimately end up in waste incineration. Added to this is the enormous amount of energy required to produce the coffee capsules, especially those made of aluminium. Overall, the ecological balance of the coffee capsules is extremely bad.

Biodegradable or compostable capsules are no better

In view of these negative ecological consequences and the increasingly bad image of coffee capsules, various companies are now offering plastic capsules that are advertised as “compostable” or “biodegradable”. The approach here: Consumers throw the capsules into the organic bin together with the kitchen and garden waste, the contents of which are then used in composting plants or fermentation plants and finally recycled as fertilizer or compost soil. Sounds good in theory, but causes new problems in reality!

The biodegradable capsules are legally considered compostable and may also be labeled as such if they have been certified via the – outdated – standard EN 13432. However, practice shows that the capsules cause considerable problems in the composting plants. While leftover food and garden waste are broken down after about two weeks in large-scale composting, the capsules are found in the compost soil in almost unchanged condition. The result: they have to be sorted out manually. The problem is that while the capsules may be biodegradable in theory, most composting facilities in the UK work much faster. The situation is similar in fermentation plants. Here, too, the capsules are sorted out in the fine processing of the fermentation residues. In addition, the biodegradable materials – the material from which the capsules are made – do not add any value to the compost or the digestate. On the contrary: compost producers explicitly reject biodegradable materials additives because their customers do not accept these foreign substances in the fertilizer products. Speaking of which: “biodegradable” plastic has no place on the compost heap in the garden either.

Reusable capsules as a way out of the waste dilemma

If you want to continue using your capsule machine, you should definitely use environmentally friendly reusable capsules that you simply fill with the coffee powder of your choice. This is also easy on the wallet, as coffee in capsules is much more expensive than in bulk. One should not rely on environmental slogans for single-use capsules such as recyclable, biodegradable or compostable. And don’t forget when buying coffee: Make sure it’s organic and fair. Information on organic and fair trade certifications can be found here.

Waste avoidance comes first

The coffee capsules are representative of a growing range of products that are advertised with the slogans “biodegradable” and “compostable” as an ecological alternative to conventional, i.e. fossil-based plastic products. Organic waste bags or bio-based disposable tableware are other examples. Here it is important to critically analyze whether these new products are really more environmentally friendly. In this context, the European standard for compostability must also be adapted to current plant technology.

For us consumers, the following applies: As welcome as the search for new, innovative materials and products may be in view of finite fossil resources and the ever-increasing problems with plastic waste, we must not rely on them as a solution for everything. Instead, we should primarily ensure that we avoid packaging waste and use reusable solutions.